Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Day 24: Picking the Perfect Pace

tortoise meets hare

I'll admit I've never given much conscious thought to a novel's pacing - even when I'm the one writing it.  Pacing has always seemed to be an intuitive thing; something that can't be broken down into a "correct" format, but must feel right.  If you don't have a natural sense of pacing take Victoria Lynn Schmidt's advice:
"The best way to learn about pacing is to read tons of books in your favorite genre.  Learn how the pros do it.  You may struggle with it a bit in the beginning of your career, but it gets easier and easier with each story you write" (Book In a Month, page 172).
That said, understanding HOW pace can be manipulated, as well as studying the advantages and disadvantages that come with pace shifts, will help you make a more informed decision in your own novel.  

How to create it:
A feeling of urgency or acceleration can be created by using a lot of simple, short sentences in your writing.  An entire paragraph can even be brought down to a single sentence, and several one-sentence paragraphs strung together move the scene along at a nice clip.  Take, for example, this scene from page 5 of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code:
     The man was now taking dead aim at Sauniere's head.
     Sauniere closed his eyes, his thoughts a swirling tempest of fear and regret.
     The click of an empty chamber echoed through the corridor.
     The currator's eyes flew open.
Each of these paragraphs is literally only a sentence, and each sentence is very brief, helping us - the readers - to read with speed and feel the hurried pace.  It's also important to note that the scene from which I took this excerpt focused almost entirely on action with only a few moments dedication to narration.  As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover,
"Action increases pace over narration" (page 170).
She goes on to suggest that writers not forget that dialogue is an important form of action too.  I use again a scene from The Da Vinci Code to illustrate this:
     "May I come in?" the agent asked.
     Langdon hesitated, feeling uncertain as the stranger's sallow eyes studied him.  "What is this all about?"
     "My capitaine requires your expertise in a private matter."
     "Now?" Langdon managed.  "It's after midnight."
     "Am I correct that you were scheduled to meet with the curator of the Louvre this evening?"
     Langdon felt a sudden surge of uneasiness.  He and the revered curator Jacques Sauniere had been slated to meet for drinks after Langdon's lecture tonight, but Sauniere had never shown up.  "Yes.  How did you know that?"
     "We found your name in his daily planner."
     "I trust nothing is wrong?"
In this scene we see again, many short sentences strung together.  There is however, the option to occasionally use extra-long, compound sentences chock-full of short actions.  Lyon cites the following example from a novel called Tailed by Brian M. Wiprud:
I was racing across the parking lot, jacket and shoes cradled in my arms, dodging cars at the pumps, leaping over fuel hoses, headed for where I last saw the Pixie dry-cleaning van, my bare feet slapping the macadam.  In my half-dressed state, I must have looked like a boudoir interloper on the skedaddle.
When to use it:
Fast paced writing can be used in a myriad of situations, briefly summarized by Elizabeth Lyon in the following list:
  • To keep a reader's interest high
  • To add zip to style
  • To create movement and heighten suspense
  • To build momentum toward big turning-point scenes and climax
  • To help develop scene structure
When to avoid it:
There are a few drawbacks to using a continually fast pace in your novel, so take care to not let them mar your writing.  Firstly, a novel steeped in speed can have the unintentional side effect of appearing melodramatic or even slapstick.

Secondly, your reader will be left exhausted from the frenetic pace of your novel if it's never interspersed with scenes that allow her to take a breather.  Even in the most exciting of action novels a person needs the chance to slow their heart rate and rejuvenate a bit before moving on to the next sweat-inducing scene.

Lastly, a novel constantly dominated by action doesn't allow the reader to see a character's internal ponderings over their backstory, goals, inner demons, and the like.  Without a few slow scenes here and there to guide us through the psyche of your character you miss out on the opportunity for readers to see that character's development and cultivate a deeper empathy and appreciation of him or her.

How to create it:
Whereas fast-paced sentence structure was short and simple, the slow-paced scene or novel should be written with longer, more complex sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.  Also a heavy use of narration can supply a character's backstory, internal development, or be used to describe the character's observations of their setting or fellow characters.  Another way to slow a pace is by using flashbacks which is, in essence, an entire scene devoted to a character's mental ruminations.  

A lot of older novels tend toward the slower pace (those authors didn't have to compete with an entire story being played in a two-hour movie), so I'd suggest looking to the classics for examples.  Nothing spells out slow to me like a Charles Dickens' novel, so here's a paragraph exemplifying complex sentences and heavy use of narration from A Tale of Two Cities:
     With drooping heads and tremulous tails, they mashed their way through the thick mud, floundering and stumbling between whiles, as if they were falling to pieces at the larger joints. As often as the driver rested them and brought them to a stand, with a wary "Wo-ho! so-ho-then!" the near leader violently shook his head and everything upon it- like an unusually emphatic horse, denying that the coach could be got up the hill. Whenever the leader made this rattle, the passenger started, as a nervous passenger might, and was disturbed in mind.
     There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
Notice in those two fairly long paragraphs the "nervous passenger" - the actual person we're reading this story to find out about - is only mentioned once, and briefly at that.

When to use it:
Slow pace can be used quite effectively in, what is termed by Jack Bickham, a sequel.  Sequels are sections used to explore a character's feelings, thoughts, dilemmas, and decisions after having just gone through some kind of action scene.  As Elizabeth Lyon so succinctly puts it,
"Scenes are actions directed toward goals.  Sequels are reactions directed toward new strategies to reach those goals.  Because sequels are reactive and reflective, their pace is often slow, at least slower than scenes" (Manuscript Makeover, page 168).
In addition to allowing a character to gather his thoughts (thus giving the reader a chance to see how a character develops), the slower pace allows the reader the chance to take a breather if the rest of the novel has been filled with more fast-paced scenes.

When to avoid it:
Despite the chance to get to know a main character better, slow scenes can be a disadvantage on occasion.  In today's market an author must be very careful when using a slow scene at the start of their novel.  Most often a reader wants to see action right from page one, not a lot of introspection from a character they haven't learned to love yet.  It's also good to be aware that too many slow scenes can lull a reader to sleep or utter boredom, so use them judiciously.

For more fantastic tips on pace and just about everything else you'd want to know when writing a book check out Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover.

MY DAY 24:  I have already written over 1800 words, which makes me happy, but it is REALLY difficult to keep myself from going back and editing!  If I could keep moving forward I think the progress would be much faster.

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